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Online Higher Education: Access to What, and for Whom?

Online Higher Education: Access to What, and for Whom?
Online learning is quickly becoming a so-called “easy answer” to the access crisis, but without more consideration of online teaching methods, it will simply create pathways for more students to fail.
The call for greater use of technology, online formats and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), in particular, to expand access is at the center of higher education discussions these days.

Too often, however, in the enthusiasm for “innovation,” there is scant attention paid to how online learning actually plays out in the lives of real students. The rarely-asked question is a fundamental one: Do online formats and MOOCs really deliver on their promoters’ promise of vastly expanded access to higher education?

Three papers recently released by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education look at the research on online higher education to answer this and other key questions (for full texts of these papers and for citations of studies referenced, please click here).

To be meaningful, “access” must mean more than just the chance to enroll in a class. It should mean students have a real shot, if they work hard, to succeed in obtaining a quality education.

Unfortunately, the research suggests that for many of the students in MOOCs and other online courses, the promise of increased “access” is little more than a promise.

The realities of the digital divide in our country make access to online courses very problematic for some groups of students, especially low-income students, students of color and academically underprepared students, who are often targeted for increased access through online learning.

There is growing research showing that these same students experience what has been described as an “online achievement gap.” Community college students, students of color and less well-prepared students experience both lower retention rates and poorer performance in online formats compared to face-to-face classes.

As research on this topic suggests, it is not enough to simply promise increased access to higher education through online learning. As is critical with any new tool, it is important to understand what actually works, and for whom.

Given that studies repeatedly show online courses work best for mature, highly-motivated students who are academically and technologically well-prepared, the call for expanding online remedial and introductory courses in community colleges and less elite state colleges and universities is misguided at best.

For many American students — who are increasingly diverse, low-income and less academically prepared for college work — an uncritical rush to “online everything” may ultimately only expand their access to failure.

Fortunately, research (including research on online teaching and learning) also tells us much about what can improve real access and a student’s chances for success. Studies show that in online courses, as in face-to-face courses, interaction with faculty members and peers can play a critical role in student performance by creating a sense of community and social presence. For students of color, academically underprepared, low-income and first-generation college students, this social interaction is particularly important.

It is not hard, then, to imagine why performance for students tends to drop off in online courses where interaction, a sense of caring and a social presence are often harder to find. Huge online courses — especially MOOCs that rely on peer or machine grading — are predictably problematic for under-prepared students who suffer when assessments do not include the kind of feedback needed for improvement and for the development of effective critical thinking skills. Under-prepared students, especially, need formative, professional feedback to assess their understanding, evaluate their own skills and improve. That kind of interaction can happen in online environments; but as teachers who work in this medium often point out, it is more difficult to foster there.

George Siemens, an early developer of the MOOC, made an important argument that should inform our discussion of technology and innovation in higher education. What is valuable in education, he points out, is not “content” or increased access to information. Instead, he argues that personalized assessments, encouragement, active support through complex subject matter and instructor questioning are the factors that make education valuable.[1]

He goes on to make another fundamental point that has unfortunately been banished from our national conversation about higher education. He argues that, “We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning.”[2]

Taking these as a starting point for discussion could perhaps be our best innovation yet if we are serious about expanding real access to, and success in, higher education.

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[1] “Duplication Theory of Educational Value,”, September 15, 2011

[2] Ibid

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